Resilience in the Ancient Gulf South (RAGs)

Next week, I start a new project (Carson has been my main project for the past few years and I plan to keep working there) –   its called RAGs and it stands for Resilience in the Ancient Gulf South. This is a collaborative project with my friend and colleague, Elizabeth Chamberlain (, who has been studying delta formation in Louisiana and Bangladesh. Our work is supported by Tulane University, The New Orleans Center for the Gulf South (, the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts (NOCCA), and volunteers from Tulane’s Center for Archaeology and the Quaternary Research Group. Our work at the site would not be possible with the stewardship and support of the landowners  and we would like to thank them for allowing us to work on this important and endangered archaeological resource. We would also like to thank the United Houma Nation  ( for talking with us about their history in southern Louisiana.

Our work focuses on the relationships between humans and the natural environment, in particular natural land-building processes in the Mississippi River delta, and compares and contrasts the pacing of sediment deposition with anthropogenic mound building. We are interested in learning more about when Native towns and mounds were built along the coast, and how soon these processes take place after wet, sub-aerial landforms break the water surface and stabilize. We can measure landform development through sediment coring, cross section development, and OSL dating, and we can study the development of archaeological sites through excavation and settlement pattern analysis. We are fortunate to have fairly high quality LiDAR and good site distribution maps, which makes finding potential sites and landforms easier to identify.

The map below shows just how close we are to the coast – all of the red dots mark prehistoric monumental sites and the numbered boxes mark land along tributaries that we’re interested in investigating. This whole system is part of the Lafourche distributary that was active between 1500 and 750 years ago – this was part of the Mississippi River before it switched over to the modern channel.

Liz areas of interest_2

Our work will date will entail excavations and sediment coring at the Bayou Grand Caillou mounds and it builds on previous pilot studies we conducted at a nearby mound site, the Ellesley Mound. We hope to uncover cultural deposits at Bayou Grand Caillou that we can use to date the occupation and define the archaeological culture that built the mounds (either Coles Creek, Plaquemine, or Mississippian,  or perhaps even historic?).  No work has been done out there and no surface collections exist.  Once we have an understanding of the cultural history, we’ll compare it to the geologic history that we are also developing.

What we hope to find is that indigenous communities of the coast built mounds on this landscape after the Lafourche system deposited mound bar sands (forming the coast), and crevasse sands (building higher elevation landforms).  Using OSL, we can date these two events, and we hope to find that pretty soon after the crevasse is deposited, the mounds are constructed.  Our primary objectives are to date the landforms and date the mounds, and to use these data to evaluate the resiliency of the Native occupations in the region.

2015-05-05 10.41.21.jpgTheoretically, our work invokes panarchy and resiliency theory, which provides aninterpretive framework for the archaeology and geomorphology of Native settlements in dynamic coastal environments. Panarchy describes the interrelated nature of complex systems and resilience is defined as the ability of systems to adapt to and withstand change. Despite experiencing hurricanes, flooding of land and wetlands, the formation of new landforms due to alluvial deposition, and changes in coastal geography and ecology related to sea level rise, Native Americans continued to occupy coastal regions for thousands of years. We claim that the construction of permanent monumental villages within the ever-shifting landscape of southeastern Louisiana signifies resiliency and an adaptation to life in a dynamic region. We expect that relatively soon after landforms stabilized, Native groups occupied them, and in many cases, built earthworks on them. We also expect they were occupied and reoccupied for long periods. If this holds true, then it will be reasonable to argue that by building monuments on newly formed land, Native peoples were creating markers of persistence that enhanced their connection to a particular place and to their social and environmental resilience.

In the long run, we hope this research will help to create models for sustainable development in coastal areas, including regions around New Orleans and the Gulf South.We think it is of the utmost importance that multi-disciplinary teams assemble and study how best humans can continue to live sustainably in coastal Louisiana. Oil exploration, subsidence, erosion, and river levees have all contributed to the steady disappearance of land in this state.

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